Read The Exiled Queen Online

Authors: Cinda Williams Chima

Tags: #Adventure, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Young Adult, #Romance, #Paranormal, #Wizards, #Magic

The Exiled Queen

BOOK: The Exiled Queen
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Seven Realms 02 - The Exiled Queen
Seven Realms 02 - The Exiled Queen

Seven Realms 02 - The Exiled Queen

For Linda and Mike—who shared a world of make-believe and kick-butt Barbies. Thanks for putting up with all the talking animals.

Seven Realms 02 - The Exiled Queen
CHAPTER ONE

THE

WEST WALL

Lieutenant Mac Gillen of the Queen’s Guard of the Fells hunched his shoulders against the witch wind that howled out of the frozen wastelands to the north and west. Looping his reins around the pommel of his saddle, he let his horse, Marauder, navigate the final half mile descent to the Westgate garrison house on his own.

Gillen deserved better than this miserable post in this miserable corner of the queendom of the Fells. Patroling the border was a job for the regular army—the foreign mercenaries, called stripers, or the Highlander home guard. Not for a member of the elite Queen’s Guard.

He’d been away from the city only a month, but he missed the gritty neighborhood of Southbridge. In Southbridge there was plenty to distract him on his nightly rounds—taverns and gambling halls and fancy girls. In the capital he’d had high-up connections with deep pockets—meaning plenty of chances to do private work on the side.

Then it had all gone wrong. There’d been a prisoner riot at Southbridge Guardhouse, and a Ragger street rat named Rebecca had jammed a burning torch into his face, leaving one eye blind, his skin red and shiny and puckered with scar tissue.

In late summer he’d taken Magot and Sloat and some others to retrieve a stolen amulet over in Ragmarket. He’d done the job on the quiet under orders from Lord Bayar, High Wizard and counselor to the queen. They’d searched that tumbledown stable top to bottom, had even dug up the stable yard, but they didn’t find the jinxpiece nor Cuffs Alister, the street thief who’d stolen it.

When they’d put the question to the rag-taggers who lived there, the woman and her brat had claimed they’d never heard of Cuffs Alister, and knew nothing about any amulet. In the end, Gillen had burned the place to the ground with the rag-taggers inside. A warning to thieves and liars everywhere.

Sensing Gillen’s inattention, Marauder seized the bit in his teeth and broke into a shambling run. Gillen wrenched back on the reins, regaining control after a bit of showy crow hopping. Gillen glared at his men, sending the grins sliding from their faces.

That’d be all he needed—to take a tumble and break his neck in a downhill race to nowhere.

Some would call Gillen’s posting to the West Wall a promotion. He’d been given a lieutenant’s badge and was put in charge of a massive, gloomy keep and a hundred other exiles—all members of the regular army—plus his own squadron of bluejackets. It was a larger command than his former post at Southbridge Guardhouse.

Like he’d celebrate ruling over a dung heap.

The Westgate keep guarded the West Wall and the dismal, ramshackle village of Westgate. The wall divided the mountainous Fells from the Shivering Fens. A drowned land of trackless swamps and marshes, the Fens were too thick to swim in and too thin to plow, impassable except on foot until the hard freezes after solstice.

All in all, control of Westgate keep added up to little opportunity for a man of enterprise like Mac Gillen. He recognized his new assignment for what it was: punishment for his failure to give Lord Bayar what he wanted.

He was lucky to have survived the High Wizard’s disappointment.

Gillen and his triple splashed through the cobbled streets of the village and dismounted in the stable yard of the keep.

When Gillen led Marauder into the stable, his duty officer, Robbie Sloat, swiped at his forehead, his pass at a salute. “We got three visitors to see you from Fellsmarch, sir,” Sloat said. “They’re waiting for you in the keep.”

Hope kindled in Gillen. This might mean new orders from the capital, at last. And maybe an end to his undeserved exile.

“Did they give a name?” Gillen tossed his gloves and sopping cloak to Sloat and ran his fingers through his hair to tidy it.

“They said as they’d speak only to you, sir,” Sloat said. He hesitated. “They’re baby bluebloods. Not much more’n boys.”

The spark of hope flickered out. Probably arrogant sons of the nobility on their way to the academies at Oden’s Ford. Just what he didn’t need.

“They demanded lodging in the officers’ wing,” Sloat went on, confirming Gillen’s fears.

“Some in the nobility seem to think we’re running a hostel for blueblood brats,” Gillen growled. “Where are they?”

Sloat shrugged his shoulders. “They’re in the officers’ hall, sir.”

Shaking off rainwater, Gillen strode into the keep. Before he’d fairly crossed the inner courtyard, he heard music—a basilka and a recorder.

Gillen shouldered open the doors to the officers’ hall to find three boys, not much older than naming age, ranged around the fire. The keg of ale on the sideboard had been breached, and empty tankards sat before them. The boys wore the dazed, sated expressions of those who’d feasted heavily. The remnants of what had been a sumptuous meal were spread over the table, including the picked-over cadaver of a large ham Gillen had been saving for himself.

In one corner stood the musicians, a pretty young girl on the recorder, and a man—probably her father—on the basilka. Gillen recalled seeing them in the village before, playing for coppers on street corners.

As Gillen entered, the tune died away and the musicians stood, pale-faced and wide-eyed, like trapped animals before the kill. The father drew his trembling daughter in under his arm, smoothed her blond head, and spoke a few quiet words to her.

Ignoring Gillen’s entrance, the boys around the fire clapped lazily. “Not great, but better than nothing,” one of them said with a smirk. “Just like the accommodations.”

“I’m Gillen,” Gillen said loudly, by now convinced there could be no profit in this meeting.

The tallest of the three came gracefully to his feet, shaking back a mane of black hair. When he fixed on Gillen’s scarred face, he flinched, his blueblood face twisting in disgust.

Gillen clenched his teeth. “Corporal Sloat said you wanted to see me,” he said.

“Yes, Lieutenant Gillen. I am Micah Bayar, and these are my cousins, Arkeda and Miphis Mander.” He gestured toward the other two, who were red-haired—one slender, one of stocky build. “We are traveling to the academy at Oden’s Ford, but since we were coming this way, I was asked to carry a message to you from Fellsmarch.” He cut his eyes toward the empty duty room. “Perhaps we can talk in there.”

His heart accelerating, Gillen fixed on the stoles draped over the boy’s shoulders, embroidered with stooping falcons. The signia of the Bayar family.

Yes. Now he saw the resemblance—something about the shape of the boy’s eyes and the exaggerated bone structure of the face. Young Bayar’s black hair was streaked with wizard red.

The other two wore stoles also, though with a different signia. Fellscats. They were all three wizardlings, then, and one the High Wizard’s son.

Gillen cleared his throat, nerves warring with excitement. “Certainly, certainly, your lordship. I hope you found the food and drink to your liking.”

“It was... filling, Lieutenant,” Young Bayar replied. “But now it sits poorly, I’m afraid.” He tapped his midsection with two fingers, and the other two boys snorted.

Change the subject, Gillen thought. “You favor your father, you know. I could tell right away you was his son.”

Young Bayar frowned, glanced at the musicians, then back at Gillen. He opened his mouth to speak, but Gillen rushed on, meaning to have his say. “It wasn’t my fault, you know, about the amulet. That Cuffs Alister is savage and street-smart. But your da picked the right man for the job. If anyone can find him, I can, and I’ll get the jinxpiece back, too. I just need to get back to the city is all.”

The boy went perfectly still, staring at Gillen through narrowed eyes, his mouth in a tight, disapproving line. Then, shaking his head, he turned to his cousins. “Miphis. Arkeda. Stay here,” Bayar said. “Have some more ale, if you can stomach it.” He flicked his hand toward the two musicians. “Keep these two close. Don’t let them leave.”

Young Bayar crooked his finger at Gillen. “You. Come with me.” Without looking back to see if Gillen was following, he stalked into the duty room.

Confused, Gillen followed him in. Young Bayar stood staring out the window overlooking the stable yard, resting his hands on the stone sill. He waited until the door had closed behind him before he turned on Gillen. “You — cretin,” the boy said, his face pale, eyes hard and glittering like Delphi coal. “I cannot believe that my father would ever engage someone so stupid. No one must know that you are in my father’s employ, understand? If word of this gets back to Captain Byrne, it could have grievous consequences. My father could be accused of treason.”

Gillen’s mouth went dead dry. “Right. A course,” he stuttered. “I — ah — assumed the other wizardlings was with you, and —”

“You are not being paid to make assumptions, Lieutenant Gillen,” Bayar said. He walked toward Gillen, back very straight, stoles swaying in the breeze from the window. As he came forward, Gillen backed away until he came up against the duty table.

“When I say no one, I mean no one,” Bayar said, fingering an evil-looking pendant at his neck. It was a falcon carved from a glittering red gemstone—a jinxpiece, like the one Gillen had failed to find in Ragmarket. “Who else have you told about this?”

“No one, I swear on the blood of the demon, I an’t told no one else,” Gillen whispered, fear a knife in his gut. He stood balanced, feet slightly apart, ready to leap aside if the wizardling shot flame at him. “I just wanted to make sure his lordship knew that I did my best to fetch that carving, but it wasn’t nowhere to be found.”

Distaste flickered across the boy’s face, as if this were a topic he’d rather not dwell on. “Did you know that while you were searching Ragmarket for the amulet, Alister attacked my father and nearly killed him?”

Blood and bones, Gillen thought, shuddering. As the longtime streetlord of the Raggers gang, Alister was known to be fearless, violent, and ruthless. Now it seemed the boy had a death wish, too. “Is — is Lord Bayar all right?” Is Alister dead?

Young Bayar answered the spoken and unspoken questions. “My father has recovered. Alister, unfortunately, escaped. My father finds incompetence difficult to forgive,” he said. “In anyone.” The bitter edge to the boy’s voice caught Gillen off guard.

“Er, right,” Gillen said. He plunged on, compelled to make his case. “I’m wasted here, my lord. Send me back to the city, and I’ll find the boy, I swear. I know the streets, and I know the gangs that run ’em. Alister’s bound to turn up in Ragmarket sooner or later, even though his mam and sister claimed he hadn’t been around there for weeks.”

Young Bayar’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward, fists clenched. “His mother and sister? Alister has a mother and sister? Are they still in Fellsmarch?”

Gillen grinned. “They’re burnt up, I reckon. We torched their place with them shut up inside.”

“You killed them?” Young Bayar stared at him. “They’re dead?”

Gillen licked his lips, unsure where he’d gone wrong. “Well, I figured that’d show ever’body else they’d better tell the truth when Mac Gillen asks questions.”

“You are an idiot!” Bayar shook his head slowly, his eyes fixed on Gillen’s face. “We could have used Alister’s mother and sister to lure him out of hiding. We could have offered a trade for the amulet.” He closed his fist on thin air. “We could have had him.”

Bones, Gillen thought. He never could say the right thing to a wizard. “You might think so, but believe me, streetlord like Alister, his heart’s cold as the Dyrnnewater. Think he cares what happens to his mam and sis? Nope. He cares about nobody but hisself.”

Young Bayar dismissed this with a wave of his hand. “We’ll never know now, will we? In any event, my father has no need of your services in hunting Alister. He has assigned others to that task. They’ve succeeded in cleaning the street gangs out of the city, but they’ve had no luck finding Alister. We have reason to think he’s left Fellsmarch.”

The boy rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand, as though he had a headache. “However. Should you ever cross paths with Alister, by accident or otherwise, my father desires that he be brought to him alive and intact, with the amulet. If you could manage that, you would, of course, be richly rewarded.” Young Bayar tried to look indifferent, but the tightness around his eyes told a different story.

The boy hates Alister, Gillen thought. Was it because Alister tried to kill his father? Anyway, Gillen could tell that there was no use pressing the matter of his return to Fellsmarch. “A’right, then,” he said, struggling to hide his disappointment. “So. What brings you to Westgate? You said you had a message for me.”

“A delicate matter, Lieutenant. One that will require discretion.” The boy made it clear he doubted Gillen had any discretion. Whatever that was.

“Absolutely, my lord, you can count on me,” Gillen said eagerly.

“Had you heard that the Princess Raisa is missing?” Bayar said abruptly.

Gillen tried to keep his face blank. Competent. Full of discretion. “Missing? No, my lord, I hadn’t heard that. We get little news up here. Do they have any idea —”

“We think there’s a chance she may try to leave the country.”

Oh, ho, Gillen thought. She’s run off, then. Was it a mother-daughter spat? A romance with the wrong sort? A commoner, even? The Gray Wolf princesses were known to be headstrong and adventuresome.

He’d seen the Princess Raisa up close, once. She was small but shapely enough, with a waist a man could put his two hands around. She’d given him the once-over with those witchy green eyes, then whispered something to the lady beside her.

That was before. Now women turned their faces away when he offered to buy them a drink.

Before, the princess might have been swept off by someone like himself—a worldly, military man. He’d even had thoughts, himself, of what it would be like to—

Bayar’s voice broke in. “Are you listening, Lieutenant?”

Gillen forced his mind back to the matter at hand. “Yes, my lord. A’course. Uh. What was that last bit?”

“I said we think it’s also possible she might have taken refuge with her father’s copperhead relatives at Demonai or Marisa Pines camps.” Bayar shrugged. “They claim she’s not with them, that she must have gone south, out of the queendom. But the southern border is well guarded. So she might try to leave through Westgate.”

BOOK: The Exiled Queen
3.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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